Liberty Matters

Goodbye, Mrs. Queen


The morning after the Queen’s death, judgment in an Australian criminal appeal was handed down. Zirilli v The King, it read. “A judgment with a King,” said the law professor who brought it to Twitter’s attention. She’d spotted the first legal ruling in the UK and Commonwealth made in the name of King Charles III. And not only that: the QCs who appeared at trial had become, by a bit of succession magic, KCs.
It will take time to get used to a King. “KC” seems harder to say. New but ordinary words — “the King” — seem strangely discordant, a constitutional malfunction. On the Thursday evening of her death, in his grief and shock, one of the talking heads on ITV said “His Majesty the Queen” three times.
Well, it is the 21st century and all.
Every obituary, from the BBC’s on down, referred to the Queen’s sense of duty. Duty, it seems, is the hardest value to model, and to uphold. It doesn’t mean being a doormat, but it does mean being constant, and brave, and decent. Sometimes people come to duty late. Others never learn to appreciate it, at least not until it’s gone. 
A sovereign to whom people get too close loses authority; a sovereign to whom people feel no connection loses legitimacy. Queen Elizabeth had a genius for balancing this tension. On her death, the way the monarchy’s constituent parts moved smoothly into place was also a reminder of the extent to which the common law nestling under the Crown she both wore and represented is a living thing. 
When Elizabeth II was crowned on 2 June 1953, the ceremony’s basic structure dated to the coronation of the first English monarch, Æthelstan, on 4th September 925, over a thousand years earlier. This sequence: Kingdom of Wessex→Kingdom of England→Kingdom of Great Britain→United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland represents a state’s continuing lineage.
The Kingdom of Wessex, founded in 519—through successfully resisting the Norse onslaught—made itself into the Kingdom of England. The Norman Conquest of 1066 changed the English state but did not replace it. With distance, Oliver Cromwell looks like a mistake, a mere interruption. Meanwhile, the Dutch conquest of 1688 was indigenised as The Glorious Revolution. Apparently, it doesn’t count as conquest if the right sort invited the conqueror to arrive with an army. Mind you, the conqueror’s wife being the presumptive heir to the overthrown monarch helped, too.
The Kingdom of England joined with the Kingdom of Scotland in 1707 to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. This wasn’t a replacement for the existing state, but a union of adjacent states already sharing (since 1603) the same Crown. The Kingdom of Ireland joined the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1800 to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. After the Irish Republic went its own way in 1922, the state became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Across each transition, laws continued, organisations and institutions continued, offices, and officeholders continued: even as the state’s territory waxed and waned. An unbroken state lineage that goes back to the founding of the Kingdom of Wessex in 519. The ending of the Wars of the Roses in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field is closer to us in time than that battle was to the founding of the state whose monarch it enthroned. 
When you study the common law, as you learn its long history and grasp its effects on the present, you realise you’re dealing with something like one of those plants that propagates via rhizomes underground. It’s why evolved systems tend to work better than designed ones, even if they seem maddeningly irrational to those who presume to know better. Evolved systems are a conversation between the generations in a way those created ab initio are not.
In 1867, Walter Bagehot argued that one function of a monarchy is to disguise underlying changes taking place in society and government. He had Queen Victoria in mind, but the observation is truer for Elizabeth II, who inherited an Empire and left a Commonwealth. 
The sentimental poem he quoted is more often remembered than the surrounding context, but Sir Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, spoke for the country when, in 1963, he addressed her thus: “All I ask you to remember in this country of yours is that every man, woman and child who even sees you with a passing glimpse as you go by will remember it, remember it with joy, remember it — in the words of the old 17th century poet who wrote those famous words, I did but see her passing by and yet I love her till I die.”
About 70 per cent of the Australian population of about 10 million saw her on her first visit to the country in 1954. Nearly a million people crowded Sydney’s foreshores and streets when she arrived on February 3. At the time, Sydney’s total population was 1.8 million. About 150,000 packed the streets around Sydney Town Hall when she attended the Lord Mayor’s Ball. Communism was the bogy. Stalin ruled the Soviet Union. Mao Zedong’s communists had won in China. Menzies ordered charges against Rex Chiplin, a Communist, for criticising the coronation. Yet, two other Communist Sydney City aldermen lined up to shake the gloved royal hand.
Bagehot went on to warn, also speaking of the monarchy, that “we must not let daylight in upon magic.” The Queen’s reign did see quite a bit of daylight let in upon magic, yet somehow the Queen herself still retained an enchantment in her person, three centuries after the monarchy itself lost its aura of Divine Right. 
And yes, some of that personal magic passed with her: the Aberdeenshire farmers who positioned their tractors to form a guard of honour as her coffin traced its path from Balmoral to Edinburgh; the graphic designer who put her official funeral plans to the theme music from Game of Thrones; the Ukrainian soldiers who, in wonky Latin script, inscribed tributes to her on missiles before firing them at Russian forces; the ten mile queue beside the Thames to pass her catafalque in Westminster Hall soon became The Queue, a monument to British orderliness and restraint which at one point had its own weather forecast.
Occasionally, the disenchanted world of politics intruded. Who was Prime Minister when the Queen died is destined to be a pub quiz question for the ages, so short was Liz Truss’s tenure in Number 10. The Great British Public discovered that many—perhaps even a majority—of Americans do not like them very much. This has been known in the Westminster Village for some time, but it came as a shock (for the majority, who don’t watch the news) to see foul-mouthed abuse on social media and mean-spirited, inaccurate reporting in established outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post
Within hours of the Queen’s death, the NYT’s opinion page was running a screed from an academic saying the late monarch had covered up colonial bloodshed. The NYT approach is ruthless and commercially canny, however. Its “dystopian UK” attack pieces are intended to go viral, to attract attention and amuse or impress Americans who get a thrill from seeing Britons on social media express annoyance or bewilderment at vile copy.
This time, coming when it did—straight after the Queen’s death—the American nastiness became an exemplar of America’s larger image problem, something I know worries thoughtful American friends. Stunned and wounded Brits sputtered about the special relationship. Meanwhile, as is their wont, Australians (who voted in a 1999 referendum to retain the monarchy) soon waded into the fray. 
Australians may share the UK’s monarch but any cultural resemblance between the two nations ends there. Australians loathe deference and only Scots equal their mastery of the blue. Americans were treated to lectures on how badly their county is run and how their much-vaunted Constitution doesn’t even work. This clip from The West Wing is widely used in Australian civics classes and a lot of smug Australians proceeded to shove it in American faces. “Don’t you know that the American presidential system is your most dangerous export, responsible for wreaking havoc in over thirty countries?”
Martin Amis once observed that “the Royal Family is just a family, writ inordinately large. They are the glory, not the power.” Many Americans no doubt think it would be rational to do away with them. However, presidential republics have a bad habit of embedding the irrational within their politics. This is why, I suspect, inaugurations look like coronations. Far better a crowned republic than somewhere where pageantry makes common cause with power.